Ducks get win to build upon
It's mid-November, the time in a football season where champions rise to the occasion.
And, so, we bring you the battle for Pac-12 North supremacy that everyone saw coming.
Oregon is scheduled to visit Washington State on Saturday, Nov. 14, where the winner will be 2-0 and alone atop the division. Kickoff is at 4 p.m. (FOX 12).
Both teams are coming off of eye-opening openers.
The Ducks' 35-14 win over Stanford feels like the start of something special — though it might be 2021 before we learn exactly how special. The Cougars' win at Oregon State was a solid debut for freshman quarterback Jayden de Laura and new head coach Nick Rolovich.
This will be a different WSU offense than the air raid attack that gave the Ducks fits when Mike Leach was calling plays. At Oregon State, the Cougars ran the ball 30 times for 229 yards and threw it 33 times for 227 yards. That kind of balance was unheard of under the pass-happy Leach.
Figure Oregon defensive coordinator Andy Avalos will keep de Laura — who completed 18 of 33 throws with a long of 29 yards and netted 43 yards with his feet — guessing with his packages.
Questions remain about what the Cougars will look like come Saturday. After the win at OSU, Rolovich said his team was down 32 players against the Beavers. He did not indicate how many were scholarship players, but we do know talented running back Max Borghi was among the missing in Corvallis.
The Ducks, who moved up to No. 11 in the AP poll and to No. 12 in the coaches' poll, had a few exciting debuts against Stanford.
Tyler Shough was solid in his first game as Oregon's quarterback. He went 17-for-26 for 227 yards and a touchdown and ran for 85 yards and a TD. He was fortunate that Stanford safety Jonathan McGill dropped what might have been a game-changing interception in the fourth quarter. And he got help from his receivers, who several times came up with tough catches on throws into coverage.
But Shough showed poise, and after some early jitters, seemed to get the Ducks into the right play and make more good decisions than poor decisions.
Shough's 85 rushing yards were the most by an Oregon QB in four years. Thirty-six of those yards came on the third-quarter drive that culminated in Shough's nine-yard TD scamper on what looked like a broken play. That came after an improbable escape on a 15-yard scramble.
More than the new QB's individual athleticism, what was most enticing about watching Oregon's offense was the mindset.
If Justin Herbert was watching, he had to be wondering how much more fun his Oregon career might have been with Joe Moorhead calling plays.
Stanford's inexperience in the defensive backfield might have had something to do with it, but Oregon certainly was willing to throw deep in the opener. The best example came on the first play after Stanford took a 7-0 lead. The Ducks started with the ball on their own 13. Shough dropped back on first down and lofted a pretty throw up the left sideline. Mycah Pittman made a great one-handed grab. The 44-yard play gave the Ducks breathing room and seemed to allow Shough and the five new starters along the offensive line to take a breath and release any remaining jitters.
It was also a glimpse of the mindset of Mario Cristobal and his coaches.
"We're going to play aggressive and I know a lot of people are going to say, 'Well, you know, why are you throwing the ball on first down?'" Cristobal said. "You know why? Because it's a good play and we should have a productive result."
The coach was actually talking about Stanford's near-interception on the first play of Oregon's final touchdown drive. But the comment reflects a go-for-it philosophy.
That isn't reckless. That's what the best football teams do. It can't be done without good offensive line play.
The way Oregon's all-new line settled in and asserted itself as the game went along, and the way it gave Shough time to throw, is a significant development.
Cristobal, of course, is an old O-lineman who considers that position the foundation of his program. Against Stanford, left tackle George Moore, left guard T.J. Bass, center Alex Forsyth, right guard Ryan Walk, right tackle Malaesala Aumavae-Laulu and tight end DJ Johnson all made their first start. Sophomore Steven Jones entered at left tackle in the third series, with Moore and Aumavae-Laulu taking turns at right tackle from there. Once the Ducks sorted out how to block Stanford's run blitzes, the group settled in and wore on the Cardinal.
"From Day 1 they have committed themselves to working and playing with toughness, finishing their blocks," Cristobal said. "A lot of guys playing their first significant football and I thought the moment was not too big for them … thought they handled what we felt was a good defense and overall (I'm) just really proud of that group."
DJ Johnson's game — five catches for 55 yards and a TD — was an example of what Oregon's greatest advantage might be in this unusual year. Depth. The former defensive end was fourth on the depth chart last week but responded when the three tight ends ahead of him couldn't go.
Grading the Oregon defense is a bit more difficult. The Ducks caught a break when Stanford found out just hours before the game it would be without starting quarterback Davis Mills because of COVID-19 contact tracing.
Despite that, Stanford nearly matched Oregon's offense for yards, netting 413, and averaging 7.2 per snap. But the Cardinal converted only four of 13 third downs, and Oregon's defense was sturdy once the Cardinal moved across midfield. Red zone defense was an Oregon strength last season. The Ducks allowed two touchdowns on four red zone trips by Stanford. Yes, Stanford kicker Jet Toner had a nightmare game, but the Ducks deserve credit for forcing those four field-goal attempts.
Individually, freshman linebacker Noah Sewell made a splash with four solo tackles. Fellow linebacker Isaac Slade-Matautia, who was in on five tackles, noted how well Sewell understood and executed defensive calls in his first action, calling him "a future star … He's big. He's physical. He really did impress me tonight."
Equally impressive was cornerback Mykael Wright. The sophomore corner figured to be busy with Stanford not wanting to test Deommodore Lenoir. Wright led the Ducks in tackles with five (four solo) and had a pair of pass breakups, including one in the end zone.
He also delivered a memorable play in the fourth quarter, sprinting across the field to keep Stanford's Nathaniel Peat out of the end zone on a 73-yard run.
I bet that play was highlighted in film sessions this week. Because as much as the Ducks' flashed enticing talent in the opener, turning that special potential into special results in 2020 is going to demand that kind of effort.
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